RV Maintenance 101: 5 Ways To Take Care Of Your Catalytic Converter

Posted on 09/07/2022 by RV Repair and Maintenance, RV and Camping Lifestyle 368
RV Maintenance 101: 5 Ways To Take Care Of Your Catalytic Converter

Plenty of people are concerned with their carbon footprint. Driving a recreational vehicle (RV), whether a motorhome or trailer home, produces greenhouse gases, and so does buying one. Granted, RVs aren’t exactly the cleanest form of travel (unless they’re electric), but it doesn’t mean they have to contribute to Earth’s carbon woes wherever they go.

Like any fossil fuel-burning vehicle, motorhomes come with a piece of environment-saving tech called a catalytic converter. You can find this box-shaped or cylindrical component underneath the RV, along the exhaust pipe just short of the tailpipe. Here’s an in-depth look at the catalytic converter, its function, and ways to keep it working.

Mitigating Harmful Emissions

Vehicle exhaust harms living things in more ways than one, but its effects are more apparent in people. While the air you breathe is mostly nitrogen, nitrogen oxide (NOx) has no business inside your body. Along with other emissions, NOx is responsible for an estimated 1,200 traffic-related deaths and millions suffering from respiratory diseases yearly in Canada.

Unfortunately, NOx is among, if not, the most prevalent compounds in vehicle exhaust. Engine fumes contain almost as much NOx as carbon monoxide (CO), another gas that’s dangerous to humans. Inhaling either can cause a host of respiratory problems, from asthma to lung cancer.

Making these gases less dangerous involves nothing short of a chemical reaction, which is where the catalytic converter comes in. This component can convert around 98% of exhaust gases into less dangerous compounds, mainly through reduction and oxidation.

Reduction focuses on breaking down NOx into its base elements: nitrogen and oxygen, basically making up the air everyone breathes. Meanwhile, oxidation adds oxygen atoms to hydrocarbons and CO, with the end product being carbon dioxide and water. Coatings made from palladium, platinum, and rhodium inside the catalytic converter make these reactions possible.

A catalytic converter never does these reactions simultaneously. It can perform either reduction or oxidation depending on how much oxygen it has in storage. An abundance of oxygen means it will prioritize oxidation, while a lack thereof will shift it to reduction.

Exercising The Utmost Care

Remarkable as its function may be, a catalytic converter can be sensitive. For instance, leaded fuels can leave a layer of lead on the palladium, platinum, and rhodium catalysts, preventing them from carrying out the reactions. Although, it isn’t much of a problem anymore, as leaded fuels have long been phased out.

But whether the RV runs on clean-burning gasoline or energy-dense diesel, catalytic converters require the utmost care to keep them working for a long time. The following are some surefire ways to maintain a catalytic converter:

1. Mind The Signs Of Failure

A vehicle’s warning lights won’t light up for no reason, and RVs aren’t any different. You wouldn’t want to go on a camping trip in your RV with the Check Engine light on for most of the journey. That’s begging to be stranded in a place where the nearest service center is a day’s drive away.

Therefore, it’s important to give the RV a test run before any long trip. The test run allows you to spot potential problems with the engine, including the catalytic converter. Apart from the Check Engine light, several signs of failure include:

  • A rotten egg smell fills the RV while driving

  • The RV struggles to gain enough acceleration

  • Stalling or sputtering when trying to start

  • Rattling sounds while driving or on idle

  • Black smoke coming out of the tailpipe

Each sign points to a unique problem. For instance, a rotten egg smell indicates the catalytic converter isn’t converting the gases properly. That’s because the odor belongs to hydrogen sulfide, a trace compound in vehicle exhaust that’s convertible to other gases.

Other signs may signify damage or trouble with a component inside the catalytic converter. Depending on the severity, fixing it may require parts replacement, which you can get from any related site or a brick-and-mortar parts store. 

2. Unclog By Driving Long Enough

Because engine exhaust comes with particulates, it’s typical for catalytic converters to clog up. The more carbon that builds up inside, the more the converter’s subject to undue stress. Luckily, there are a few inexpensive ways to remove the buildup.

One approach many vehicle owners swear by is driving long enough for the converter to reach its optimal operating temperature. Newer models can go from standard to blistering enough to burn off residues in two to three minutes. On the other hand, older models need between 10 and 15 minutes to reach operating temperature.

Another inexpensive way to unclog a converter is by adding a catalytic converter cleaning solution into the gas tank. However, experts advise a closer look before buying a cleaner, as some solutions might contain chemicals that are bad for the converter. Additionally, keep in mind that no amount of cleaner will fix a converter that has sustained structural damage.

3. Ensure A Healthy Engine

In most situations, a failing catalytic converter isn’t to blame for a vehicle breaking down. It has no moving parts and only receives whatever the engine belches. Thus, a converter struggling to do its job may indicate an engine problem.

Case in point: In 2018, a superheated’ catalytic converter razed more than 90,000 acres of lush forest in several protected lands in the United States. The investigation concluded that pieces from the catalytic converter broke off, went out of the tailpipe, and set the dry vegetation ablaze. The fire claimed the lives of two firefighters and injured around 20 civilians.

While catalytic converters can get as hot as 2,000oF (1,093oC) when under heavy load, they won’t catch fire (unless a manufacturing defect exists). However, superheated pieces coming out of the tailpipe point to the composition of the engine exhaust getting produced. Some of the engine problems a malfunctioning converter can point to include:

  • Spark plugs working long past their operational life span

  • Radiator coolant or antifreeze leaking into the exhaust

  • Failing oxygen sensor causing incomplete combustion

For this reason, vehicle and RV owners should mind the signs explained earlier. Putting off repairs for too long increases the risk of irreparable damage. In such a case, a malfunctioning converter would be the least of your worries.

4. Avoid Secondhand Replacements

With regular use and maintenance, catalytic converters can remain functional for up to 10 years or about 160,000 km. It’s one of a handful of vehicle parts that only get replaced at least once in the vehicle’s lifetime.

Yet sometimes, a converter will start having problems before it gets to the end of its life span. Mechanics can fix most issues, but they can also advise swapping the old converter for a new one if it’s beyond repair.

Here’s where most owners can’t help but worry about their wallets. At between CAD$1,500 and CAD$2,500, a new catalytic converter doesn’t come cheap. Arguably, the primary cost driver is the precious metals used. For instance, Earth’s crust only has an estimated ‘one-millionth of 1%’ supply of platinum—and that’s the most plentiful of the three.

Now that you’ve learned this, you may be tempted to scour the internet for secondhand or surplus converters. However, you wouldn’t want to do that for many reasons, especially for RVs.

  • RV salvage services are few and far between, as dismantling one is a costly business. Secondhand parts in the market most likely come from individual sellers.

  • The components’ quality has degraded, whether from extensive use or just being idle on the driveway for most of the RV’s life. 

  • While the cost of the part is low, repairing or replacing any of its subparts due to problems might negate the savings gained.

As pricey as it is, a factory-fresh catalytic converter is a far better investment. Think about it: it’ll take another 160,000 km or more before it requires attention. Just remember to drive the RV carefully, particularly on rough roads. 

5. Stick To The Maintenance Timeline

Unless you have extensive experience working with vehicles, you’ll most likely bring your RV to the service center for repair and maintenance. In this case, the least you can do is to follow the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner’s manual.

Like cars and trucks, the maintenance schedule for RVs is based on the odometer reading or the number of years, whichever comes first. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Oil change – every 6,400 km for gas engines, 32,000 km for diesel engines, or once every year at the minimum

  • Spark plugs – every 48,000 km (dependent on the type of spark plugs used and the frequency of taking out the RV)

  • Fuel filters – every 48,000 km or every two years

As explained previously, a healthy engine can do wonders for the catalytic converter. The latter won’t be as stressed in performing its duties, owing to the engine combusting correctly.

Conclusion

The catalytic converter is a crucial part of any fossil fuel combustion system, RVs included. It doesn’t necessarily emit air you can directly breathe, but it makes the air less harmful to people. Its role in preserving the environment means it can’t afford to fail no matter what; hence, the necessity of proper maintenance. 

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